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Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland Paperback – December 17, 2007

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Editorial Reviews


“The science is explained with an infectious zest. His book is so revealing that the new... as well as the old should read it.” (Boyd Tonkin - Independent [England])

“Make[s] a good case for genetics taking its place alongside archaeology and history as a tool for understanding the past.” (Ann Forester - Library Journal)

About the Author

Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at Oxford University, pioneered the use of DNA in exploring the human past. He is also the founder and chairman of Oxford Ancestors (, which helps individuals explore their genetic roots using DNA. He is the author of Saxons, Vikings, and Celts; The Seven Daughters of Eve, a New York Times bestseller; and Adam’s Curse.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (December 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393330753
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393330755
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (180 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #43,109 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Bryan Sykes is professor of human genetics at Oxford University. His company, Oxford Ancestors, traces human genetic backgrounds. Sykes's books include the New York Times best-selling The Seven Daughters of Eve.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

365 of 373 people found the following review helpful By Leonard J. Wilson on March 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, Bryan Sykes, professor of genetics at Oxford, describes his research and conclusions on the Genetic Atlas of Britain project. His goal was to develop a description of how the genetic background of the current populations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland differ from each other and how these differences might be traced to the various ethnic groups that settled the Isles: Celts, Picts, Romans, Saxons-Angles-Jutes, Vikings, Danes, and Normans.

Background: Because a person's nuclear DNA is derived from both parents in equal parts, trying to track one's genetic heritage backward is complicated by the doubling of the number of ancestors each generation. Even the most recent arrivals considered in Sykes' study, the Normans, ca. 1066, go back about 1000 years, or 40 generations. This gives us about 2-to-the-40th-power ancestors in that generation. That's a big number, roughly equal 10-to-the-12th-power, or about 100 times the current population of the entire Earth. This apparent conundrum reflects the fact that there must have been a large number of intermarriages among cousins of various degrees in the course of the 40 generations, so that many of the names on our lists of 10-to-the-12th-power ancestors would likely be repeated several times over. The message here is that the genetic heritage of a specific individual (his nuclear DNA) really can't be tracked back far enough to reach any useful conclusions about the population of the Isles in 1066 or earlier. However, all is not lost.

Methodology: To overcome this problem, Sykes uses two genetic markers that are passed on unchanged, except by rare genetic mutation. First, mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) is passed on to all offspring by their mother, unmodified by any contribution from the father.
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147 of 155 people found the following review helpful By Suet on December 12, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This is a popular account of the Oxford Genetic Atlas Project, an attempt to map the genetic composition of Britain and Ireland. Prof. Sykes is something of an academic star, best known as the author of 'The Seven Daughters of Eve'.

The book is not heavy on technicalities but the necessary background is clearly explained. DNA is the instruction set for a living organism. Most of it gets mixed in sexual procreation, half coming from each parent. This does not happen, however, to two particular kinds: mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) which is copied from mother to children and is passed on only by daughters, and the DNA of the male Y-chromosome which is copied from father to sons. Because these come from only one parent, they remain stable over a great many generations. To cut to the chase, it is possible in principle to use mDNA to trace your matrilineal ancestry - mother, grandmother, great-grandmother - all the way back. Twenty thousand years ago there was just one living woman from whom you inherit your mDNA (maybe her mother was alive too - oh, all right, her granny as well).

By studying and comparing mutations in the mDNA sequence (random unimportant copying errors which, once they occur, are passed on) it is possible to allocate all human beings to a few dozen groups or 'clans'. Within each clan the lines of matrilineal ancestry are inferred to converge to one woman whom the author calls 'clan mother'. For example, most people of west European origin are descended from one or other of seven clan mothers who lived between 10000 and 45000 years ago. Prof. Sykes believes he can determine where as well as when these clan mothers lived: 'Helena' in the south of France, 'Jasmine' in Syria and so on.
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121 of 134 people found the following review helpful By John L Murphy TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 25, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Earlier reviewers sum up Professor Sykes arguments well. I read "Seven Daughters," and what struck me about this "sequel" is that Sykes does not engage in the imaginary narratives with which he enlivened the composite "life and times" of his seven genetic prototypical mDNA matriarchs. Those tales gave a poignant and charming (albeit popularized and therefore probably bound to annoy his colleagues) glimpse into the conjectured "inspired by a true story" that we cannot fully translate from Paleolithic Europe. "Saxons, Vikings, and Celts" avoids this fictional device.

Reading between the lines, as many readers and critics misunderstood his "seven daughters" as "real" individuals, Sykes may have opted for less creative methods to explain the patriarchal counterparts-- which are far more numerous if less attractively developed here in their genetically distinguishable progeny, it seems from their Y-chromosome variants. Instead you get potted histories and summarized geographies of the early formation of the land and the tribes that entered the various insular regions post-Ice Age. While valuable to a general readership who never heard of Geoffrey of Monmouth or learned where the Grampians sprawl, such data does fill these pages with a lot of material that veers tangentially from his genetic research. It's difficult in a book aimed at non-scholars to combine so much information from so many fields; it reminds me too of Jared Diamond's similarly ambitious, polymathic, and synthesizing efforts that roam widely in rounding up support for the grand scientific thesis that spans millennia. Like Diamond, Sykes arouses scholarly and popular controversy. He too likes a good anecdote, and labors to entertain as well as educate, and shows he can speak to audiences outside the learned seminar.
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